The Magazine

Truth of the Matter

The writing and editing of ‘fact.’

Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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One gathers that Todd does not change many of Kidder’s words. Instead he edits for emphasis, structure, and flow. “The best thing an editor can do,” he writes, “is help a writer to think, and this is the most satisfying part of an editor’s work, collaborating at the level of structure and idea.” He adds that “[e]ditors ideally can hear and see prose in a way that the writer cannot. And to notice [a problem] may be enough, preferable to trying to fix it oneself.” 

Kidder holds that “writers who need editors have to learn to listen, really listen, to advice that no one wants to hear—that you should jettison hard-earned pages, that you must start again.” Todd’s praise is generally restrained, but his editorial advice, one gathers, though authoritative, is tactfully delivered. His relationship with Kidder has never slid into the adversarial. “Editing at its best involves the editorial engagement between editor and author,” he writes. “Editing at its worst is more like combat.” 

Reading about Kidder and Todd, one thinks of one’s own experience with editors. The fates of my book-length manuscripts in the hands of editors have been wildly varied. I had an editor for one of my books a few years ago who frequently wrote in the margins of my manuscript: “More texture.” I hadn’t a notion what she had in mind by “texture,” and we soon parted ways. In a little book I wrote on Tocqueville, I mentioned that Tocqueville’s father served as a prefect in Metz, which caused its editor to set out in my margin, “More about Metz.” I replied that if he wanted to learn more about Metz, he could consult a Baedeker, for he would get no more about the French provincial town from me.

The editor of my first book was a man in his mid-30s named Hal Scharlatt. He was one of the hot editors of the day—the early 1970s—at a time when many editors were well known, at least within the scribbling trade. Some of the better known among them were: Henry Sutton, Ashbel Green, David Segal, Robert Gutwillig, Elizabeth Sifton, Aaron Asher, and Robert Gottlieb. Unlike Richard Todd, Scharlatt was the reverse of reliable. He didn’t answer letters, returned calls only after long intervals, and might show up 40 minutes late for a lunch meeting. In dealing with my manuscript, he never deigned to offer particular criticism. Instead, at the end of a chapter he might write, “Things slow down here. I’d cut this chapter by 20 percent.” No indication of how or where to cut; nor any word about how he derived the figure 20 percent. The astonishing thing is that he was always right. After a French lunch and a workout on the tennis court, Hal Scharlatt dropped dead of a heart attack at 39.  

I have had other good, if not so eccentric, editors for my books. The fine literary taste of a woman named Pat Straughn made itself quietly felt in a book I wrote on the subject of snobbery. A young editor named Webster Younce was largely hands-off with the manuscript of a book I wrote about friendship, except to suggest (rightly) that I ought to begin the book with what was then its third chapter. Carol Houck Smith was my editor for roughly 15 years at W. W. Norton, and I have no recollection of her ever suggesting a change or touching a sentence in the nine books I published with her. What I do recall is lots of laughter and a shared love for the singing of Blossom Dearie. 

In Good Prose, Kidder and Todd take up the nonfiction form of the essay, but without any special penetration. Their examples of consummate essayists comprise the usual suspects. They write the standard goop on those old bores Emerson and Thoreau, and are not much fresher on Virginia Woolf. E. B. White, like a literary Muhammad Ali at a major sporting event, puts in his standard appearance. William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb and Max Beerbohm go unmentioned. Closer to our time, they exalt A. J. Liebling and Joan Didion. They seem to miss the key note in Didion, which is depression, and the fact that Liebling, amusing though he could be, was chiefly slumming in most of his essays. 

Kidder and Todd are not much better on the memoir. They fail to make the crucial distinction between memoir and confession, a mistake many contemporary writers of memoir make—much to their readers’, if not their own, embarrassment. Every memoir should be “a record of learning,” they write. Tell that to the duc de Saint-Simon, who used his memoir, the greatest ever written, chiefly to revenge himself on his enemies at Versailles. Kidder has produced a single memoir, My Detachment, about his days in an administrative, not a line, company in Vietnam, and it is one of his less successful books. The reason for this is that Tracy Kidder, an honest and an honorable writer, has neither an interestingly complex mind nor an original point of view. His virtues are doggedness and decency. He was made to write about other people, ordinary people, and he does best to include himself in his writing only when he is absolutely required to do so. 

Which is why the portion of Good Prose devoted to what the authors call “narrative nonfiction” is the most interesting, and also the most controversial, portion of the book. Making books out of other people’s lives is fraught with complications. Not the least of them is whether, as Janet Malcolm contended in her book The Journalist and the Murderer, all such projects are corrupted from the start. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” Malcolm wrote. Kidder and Todd, naturally enough, do not agree—or at least they think Malcolm’s assertion needs to be highly qualified. They set out rules for removing the element of corruption from the transaction between writer and subject, which consist chiefly of candor on the part of the writer to his subject from the outset, in what amounts to a literary version of a prenuptial agreement.  

Corruption, though, can derive from both sides. Often in these arrangements, each party (subject and writer) is out to seduce the other, each for his own motives. The writer wants his story; the subject wants to be written up in a way that will enhance his reputation, glamorize him, or one way or another redound to his greater glory. Invariably, the two are using each other, no mistake about it. 

A number of years ago, I allowed a piece to be written about me by a reporter from the Chicago Tribune. Our interaction began with a call in which she told me how much her mother “adored” my short stories. I let her attend a class I was then teaching; she claimed to find my teaching highly polished. I took her to lunch, where we talked amiably, almost intimately, about common experiences we had undergone in Chicago, where we had both grown up. We parted amiably, she to write a profile that portrayed me as pretentious, affected, snobbish, and mildly out of it. I suppose I have no right to complain, since my motive was to come off as immensely charming, or at least likable, with the result that the pleasing publicity would bring me many new readers. The frog (me) in this case didn’t know what he was getting into when he agreed to transport the scorpion (the reporter) across the pond. 

Journalism entailing interviews, or allowing the writer to hang around the subject as he goes through his normal life, is a form of documentary—with a cinéma vérité touch added. As such, it perforce requires the writer to be selective, to make decisions about what to put in and what to exclude. The more the element of selection is in play, the lower the truth quotient of literary, as of film, documentary. This is why “narrative nonfiction” has a lower status than fiction. “Fiction is where the truth can be found,” Frederic Raphael has written; “documentary is too often where it is confected.” One thinks here about the most famous nonfiction narrative of the past century, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, about which witnesses continue to come forth to attest that Capote invented some of the most crucial scenes in his very readable book. 

Good Prose is something of a misnomer as a title, until the book’s end, where the authors include eight pages of notes on grammar and usage. Here, they are, for most part, on the side of the angels. They rightly favor H. W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage over all other guides to careful English. They allow for change in the language, yet retain a sensible distaste for many words and constructions because of their imprecision and awkwardness. “Iconic,” “parenting,” “impacting,” and “proactive” are among their bugaboo words, and they would outlaw all sports metaphors from contemporary prose. They don’t much care, either, for “going forward” in place of “in the future” or “soon,” and contemn “folks” in place of “people”—two locutions that, if legally outlawed, would render our current president nearly speechless. 

Kidder and Todd fail to announce a ban on “journey,” the great overworked metaphor of the day (so that now, among the psychobabblous, marriage, raising children, cancer, and life itself are flaming “journeys”). They concede that “to Google” has entered the language and that it no longer requires quotation marks. They neglect to note, though, the comic awkwardness of the phrase “I Googled myself,” which is something every writer does frequently and which sounds like nothing so much as the mental equivalent of an act that 19th-century medical encylopedias referred to as “the secret vice”—a vice Googling oneself all too closely resembles. 

Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is the author, most recently, of Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet.